Living history: Students learn about D-Day from the men who were there

Russell O\'Connell listens as seventh graders at Rocky Run Middle School ask him about his experiences during World War II. O\'Connell flew planes with the 368th fighter group, escorting bombers over Europe. About 100 veterans and eyewitnesses participated in an oral history day at the school, a 14-year program that has taught more than 5,000 students about World War II. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)

CHANTILLY, Va. – History came alive for some Fairfax County students on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The students learned firsthand from those World War II veterans who landed on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 about the battle that was the turning point of the war and helped take back Europe from the Nazis.

Rocky Run Middle School in Chantilly hosted its 14th annual World War II Oral History Day Friday. Jamie Sawatzky, a history teacher at the school, says oral history day was born after a WWII veteran shared his story with Sawatzky’s history class. Sawatzky says each year, it’s grown and now it’s a full-day event.

Veterans come to the school each year on oral history day so the 7th graders can talk to and learn from them, from their eyewitness accounts.

“Honestly, this is the last generation to get the opportunity to interview the greatest generation,” Sawatzky says of WWII vets, who are now in their late 80s and in their 90s now.

Veteran John Bucur, who served in the U.S. army and landed at Normandy two days after the invasion, has taken part in oral history day for the past 10 years. He says he has so much to tell the students but not enough time.

The students spend three days researching and preparing 30 questions for their interview with their veteran. The students are organized into groups. Bucur says the students have definitely done their homework. In fact he says, “They have questions that many times surprise me.”

Each veteran has a student guide for the day. Seventh-grader Matthew Lichtblau was the guide for Bucur. Even though Lichtblau is only 13 years old, he understands why this oral history day is so important.

“To pass on their stories so that when they’re gone they won’t be forgotten,” he says.

These students are preserving the veterans’ oral histories for future generations. Some of the group interviews are videotaped and will be sent to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Sawatzky is extremely proud of oral history day, which has expanded to include other wars a well.

During the past 14 years, 5,000 students have gone through the program, he says.

This year, more than 100 guests were invited, including veterans and eyewitnesses from World War II and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sawatzky says this is the day that he is the most proud to be a U.S. history teacher.

“We received an email this week from a college freshman who wrote to us because he knew the day (oral history day) was approaching and said that is the single best educational day of his life.”

Sawatzky says that is beyond priceless for him.

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